Incident at Bannial Flatt Farm, nr Whitby

3rd February, 1940

( from 'Luftwaffe Over The North' by Bill Norman )


"At approximately 6.30am on February 3rd, 1940, Heinkel 111 bombers of KG 26 (L÷wen Geschwader) lifted off from their temporary base in Schleswig, North Germany, and flew due west. They took off in pairs and at three minute intervals; their task was to locate a British convoy which was southbound from Sweden and believed to be down the north-east coast of England. Any aircraft sighting the convoy was to report its position and to shadow it until the rest of the geschwader arrived and a decisive attack could be launched.

One of the aircraft that set out that day was 1H+FM (No. 2323), crewed by Unteroffiziers Hermann Wilms (pilot), Rudolph Leushacke (observer), Johann Meyer (flight engineer/ventral-gunner) and Karl Missy (radio-operator/dorsal-gunner). Before the day was over their flight would achieve a measure of historical significance, but two of them would never know.

As the raiders flew out over the forbidding greyness of the North Sea, three Hurricanes of 'B' Flight, 43 Squadron, stood 'at readiness' at Acklington, Northumberland, the only aerodrome in the north-east sector not snowbound. One of the pilots who shivered in the dispersal hut on that intensely cold February morning was F/Lt Peter Townsend (Hurricane L.2116); the others were F/O 'Tiger' Folkes (L.1723) and Sgt Jim Hallowes (L.1847).

At 9.03am an operator at the North Yorkshire radar station of Danby Beacon reported: 'Two unidentified at 60 miles; approaching at 1,000 feet.' The message was flashed to HQ 13 Group, Fighter Command, at Newcastle, who relayed it to Acklington: 'B' Flight was scrambled.

With Townsend leading, the Hurricanes sped southwards at full throttle; they flew in search formation and at low altitude above the waves to minimize the risk of detection by the enemy. As they did so, faceless voices guided them towards an encounter which would be violent and bloody: 'Vector 180. Bandits off Whitby. Angels one.' Then, two minutes later, 'Raiders attacking unarmed trawler off Whitby.'

When the fighters arrived, only one raider could be seen. Townsend saw it first, starboard of his position. The Hurricanes banked in a climbing turn and closed on their target.

While Hallowes positioned himself to head off any escape attempt, Townsend fired the opening burst. Rudolf Leushacke was caught by the first hail of bullets, which peppered the nose-cone in which he was lying: he died instantly. Townsend also hit the starboard engine and when Folkes launched the second attack, from dead astern, that motor was already trailing 'considerable smoke'. As Folkes made his approach, Meyer, who was manning the lower gun position slung on the underbelly, had no time to react before the attacker's gunfire raked along the fuselage and reached him: he was mortally wounded in the stomach and began to bleed profusely. Karl Missy, in the upper turret, tried to repulse the attack with the only weapon at his disposal, a single MG 15. He must have realised how hopeless it was, but he did not stop firing, even when the attackers' bullets shattered his legs.

Instinctively, Wilms, the only crew member to escape injury in the attack, knew that the only defence against such odds was the protection that the cloud offered. He pulled hard on the stick and soon the Heinkel was enveloped by a blanket of grey.

However, the engines had been hit - the starboard one was out - and failing power made a crash-landing inevitable. Their only hope was to make for the coast, some two miles to the west. The Heinkel, its undercarriage already lowered, emerged from the clouds and turned towards Whitby - behind it there trailed an ever-lengthening, horizontal plume of smoke. But the attackers offered no respite.

The chatter of machine guns and the roar of low-flying aircraft as the crippled raider grazed the cliffs and passed low over the town caused many sightseers to rush out into the streets. What they saw was both dramatic and impressive: the crippled Heinkel, riddled with bullet holes and yawing from side to side as Wilms tried desperately to keep aloft on one smoking engine, was gradually sinking earthwards. The Hurricanes continued to press home attack after attack - one fighter firing at the tail from below, a second firing from above, and the third circling low overhead as if to force the raider even lower.

Wilms was now over open country and on the edge of the moors some two miles north of Whitby, struggling to keep control. Mrs Ruth Smailes, at home at Bannial Flatt Farm, heard the engines and looked out in time to see the doomed Heinkel snap through the telegraph wires suspended in its path and narrowly miss the roof of a barn. Then it was down, its undercarriage collapsing as the aircraft's weight settled upon it.

Circling overhead, the three pilots from Acklington watched with interest while the skidding hulk sprayed snow and mud high into the air as it gouged its way across a field and towards a line of trees and a pair of cottages that blocked its path.

Wilms must have been aware what lay in front of him, but there was little time to worry, and there was little he could do anyway. Then, the luck that kept him safe throughout the whole encounter intervened again. His machine was already slowing as it approached the sycamores: when the machine struck the trees the impact was enough to halt further progress; the Heinkel stopped only yards from the cottages.

The first enemy aircraft to crash on English soil during the Second World War was down. Such was the skill of Wilms that Folkes was sufficiently impressed to report later that the landing had been 'carried out under control'.

Postscript:

In the above illustration, the body of Rudolf Leushacke lies in the snow. Johann Meyer died later that day after being operated on at Whitby and District War Memorial Cottage Hospital. The bodies of Meyer and Leushacke were subsequently removed to Catterick, where they were buried with full military honours. Hermann Wilms was taken to an internment camp and survived the war: he died in December, 1974, in Kaufbeuren. Karl Missy survived but had his right leg amputated - he was repatriated to his home town of Rheydt in October, 1943, as part of a POW exchange. He died in 1981 at the age of 69.

'Tiger' Folkes was dead within a month of the Whitby incident: his aircraft crashed into the North Sea off Wick during a convoy patrol and he was never seen again. Jim Hallowes survived the war and left the RAF in 1956 with the retained rank of Wing Commander: he died in 1987. Peter Townsend also survived the war. He retired from the RAF in 1956 with the rank of Group Captain.

In June, 1945, the (then) North Riding County Council erected a plaque to commemorate the incident. It can be seen on a stone pillar at Sleights Lane End, some three miles north of Whitby, at the junction of the A171 and A169. The 50th Anniversary of the incident passed unnoticed."


( The above abridged extracts are by kind permission of Bill Norman from his excellent and recommended book 'Luftwaffe Over The North' published by Leo Cooper Books Ltd, a fascinating collection of episodes which occurred during the air war over the north east of England from 1939-1943 including many eye witness accounts and photographs )

( Illustrations by kind permission of Stuart McMillan )

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